As some of you may remember, last year I built a PC. But not just any PC. My aim, at the time, was to build something powerful enough to play Battlefield 3, and do some video and audio editing. The result was a bit of a monster. Housed inside a full size Corsair 650D case, the rig sported a Core i7, 16GB of RAM, an 850 Watt PSU, an SSD, and an Nvidia GTX 570. Having lived with it for year, and having added a few extra hard drives and LED lights, something dawned on me: do I need this much power? Or, more appropriately, do I need a PC this big?
For those of you who aren't familiar with the joys of living in London, the flats here are pretty small--unless you've got stupid amounts of money to throw around. So in my tiny bedroom in North London, the 650D simply takes up too much space, even if--with all its hard drive racks, drive bays, and PCI slots--it's a great case to expand into. But if expanding isn't something I'd really done over the past year, why would I start now? I don't plan on running a huge RAID array for example, or more than one graphics card in SLI or Crossfire.
Without the need for all that space, a smaller case is certainly an option. And it's not like it would be an entirely foreign endeavour. Earlier this year I built a £300 "Steam Box" PC based on a Micro ATX motherboard, which worked like a charm. Sure, it wasn't the sexiest-looking PC out there, nor--thanks to the budget constraints--was it the smallest, but as a proof of concept it was a good one. For my own build I wanted to go even smaller, sexier, and still have something incredibly powerful to use for gaming and multimedia work. That left only one option: Mini ITX.
"I wanted to go even smaller, sexier, and still have something incredibly powerful…"
Mini ITX boards have come on leaps and bounds over the past few years. Originally developed by electronics manufacturer VIA Technologies in 2001 for embedded systems like set top boxes, Mini ITX motherboards now sport many of the same features as full size ATX boards. In the case of Intel's latest Z77 chipset, that means overclocking support for Core i7/i5/ Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge processors, PCIe 3.0, USB 3, and SATA 6G. What you give up is largely the amount of expansion slots. Generally, there's only one PCIe slot (so no extra sound card or capture device), two DIMM slots for RAM, and just four SATA ports.
It really is worth looking at those limitations if you're considering going with Mini-ITX as I have. Although you can do a lot with external devices now, especially those based on USB 3, there are some things like graphics cards and extra SATA ports that can only be had via the magic of PCIe.
With my mind made up it was time to choose the parts. I had intended to recycle a lot of stuff from my previous rig, but the limitations of Mini-ITX meant some things had to be replaced. Unlike other builds where you might start with what motherboard and processor you want, a lot of what you can do with Mini-ITX is defined by the case you choose. There are a lot of Mini-ITX cases to choose from these days, but few are geared up for high-performance computing. Many are designed to sit under a TV, or attach to the back of a monitor, giving you little room for long graphics cards or multiple hard drives.
After running down the options there were really only two cases that had the space I needed to house an adequate amount of kit: Silverstone's SUGO range and BitFenix's Prodigy. The Silverstones are small, Shuttle-style cube cases, which come with the added bonus of an included power supply. However, while they will fit a full-length graphics card, there's not a lot of room for much else. There's space for only two 2.5" drives, and only one 3.5" drive. Plus, water-cooling isn't really an option, at least not without extensive modding.
The Prodigy was the obvious choice for my needs. Not only does it support a vast array of cooling options thanks to multiple fan mounts, but it also supports a lot more drives--up to nine if you aren't using a long graphics card. In my opinion, it looks a lot better too. Other great features include support for full-size ATX power supplies, which are ideal if you need the extra power for overclocking, plus there's lots of room inside for big CPU heatsinks, should you wish to use one. The only issue you might have with the case is its size: it isn't the smallest Mini-ITX case out there, but compared to something like the 650D, it's positively tiny.
For the CPU I decided to reuse the Intel Core i7 2700K from my last build. Intel's new Ivy Bridge chips do have the added benefit of support for the new, faster PCIe 3.0 standard, as well as slightly lower power consumption, but for me its performance boosts weren't quite enough to consider splashing out on a whole new CPU. I did, however, need to get a new motherboard. There isn't a whole lot of choice when it comes to Mini-ITX, particularly in the performance category.
Gigabyte makes a value-orientated range, but even on the Z77 model, overclocking support is weak at best. That left ASRock's Z77E-ITX, and ASUS's P8Z77-I Deluxe. Both have received rave reviews for their performance, especially ASUS's board, which--with its unique 10-phase power Digi+ VRM daughter board--should overclock like a champ.
But just when I thought I'd made my mind up, enthusiast favourite EVGA released its take on Mini-ITX with the Z77 Stinger motherboard. I've had some experience with EVGA's graphics cards and most notably its monster SR-2, dual Xeon motherboard that we used to build the Greatest Gaming Rig on GameSpot. Both times I was impressed with the build quality and performance of its devices. And--from a purely superficial point of view--the understated black and red colour scheme was way more appealing than the neon blue of the ASUS.
The EVGA Stinger has a similar feature set too, including four SATA ports (two 3G, two 6G), support for up to 16GB of 2133MHz DDR3 RAM, 7+1 Phase PWM, two e-SATA ports, and up to six USB 3.0 ports. What's missing is the included WiFi card, which is a disappointing omission at the board's higher price of £160, though there is a Mini PCI-e slot on the motherboard for adding one yourself.
The rest of the rig was an easy shop. For the GPU I settled on an Nvidia GTX 680--a bump over the 570 I used last year--and for cooling I decided to reuse Corsair's excellent 240mm radiator H100 liquid cooler, which performed brilliantly for me over the past year. Some things, however, had to be replaced. The RAM, which was originally 16GB spread out over four sticks, had to go. With only two slots it had to be replaced with two 8GB sticks, for which I went with Corsair's mean-looking performance-tweaked 1866Mhz Dominator Platinum RAM.
The PSU posed its own problems. While Bitfenix's Prodigy case supports full-size ATX PSUs, it only supports those with a maximum length of 160mm. That meant the Corsair 850HX I'd been using wouldn't fit. Instead, I replaced it with a fully modular Corsair AX 750 PSU, and paired it with a red braided cable kit to match the motherboard. For storage I went with a Corsair Neutron 240GB SSD, rated for 555 MB/s sequential read and 370 MB/s sequential write, and one of Samsung's new 840 Pro SSDs, which are rated for 540 MB/s sequential write, and 520 MB/s sequential read.
The Corsair would be used for storing the Windows OS, as well as a few key programs and games that I played often. The Samsung, with its superior write speeds would be used for a Hackintosh partition (that is, installing Mac OS X onto standard PC hardware), on which I do most of my audio and video work. I don't store a whole lot of media on my rig--a 4TB home server handles those duties--so I went with a pair of single platter, 500GB 7200RPM Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000.D drives.
Here's the total list of parts including prices:
Case: Bitfenix Prodigy White - £64.99 ($79.99)
Motherboard: EVGA Z77 Stinger - £160 ($199.99)
CPU: Intel Core i7 2700K @3.5Ghz - £200 ($329.99)
RAM: 16GB Corsair DDR3 Dominator Platinum, PC3-14900 (1866), CAS 9-10-9-27 - £150 ($154.99)
Cooling: Corsair H100 - £90 ($100)
PSU: Corsair AX750 - £126 ($169.99)
Cables: Corsair braided PSU Cables - £52 ($59.99)
Fans: 4x Bitfenix Spectre 120mm White LED - £22 ($46)
SSD One: Corsair Neutron 240GB - £167 ($189.99)
SSD Two: Samsung 840 Pro - £184.99 ($269.99)
Hard Drives: 2X 500GB Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000.D - £70 ($113)
GPU: Nvidia GTX 680 2GB - £360 ($469)
Total: £1646.98 ($2182.92)
As I discovered, the key to building in a smaller case like the Bitfenix Prodigy is forward planning. There's not a lot of room to move inside the case, so most things have to be partly assembled before fixing them to the case. The first step was to remove the optical drive bay at the top of the case to make space for the H100. I can't remember the last time I actually used an optical drive, so this wasn't a big deal for me, but it's something to consider if you still rely on optical disks. The next step was to remove the top hard drive rack, which I easily slid out by pressing on its plastic retaining clips. That was in order to make room for the GTX 680, which is a relatively long card. If you're using a shorter card like a 560Ti, you can keep the rack in place. Even with the rack removed there's still space for two 3.5" disks, as well as four SSDs via mounting points on the floor of the case, in front of the PSU, and on the side panel.
The first thing to go in the case was the motherboard. As there's no CPU cutout (and the board mounts flat anyway), I had to fix the H100 mount to the board before placing it in the case. As the case only supports Mini-ITX, the motherboard standoffs are pre mounted, so it was simply a case of sliding the board in and tightening the screws. Next job was the H100. In order to mount the unit in a push/pull configuration (i.e. with four fans), they all had to be affixed to the unit outside of the case before carefully holding it steady and screwing it in; it helps if you've got a friend around to help hold it in place while you fix the screws.
After clamping the pump to the CPU, which was a tad fiddly given the limited space, it was simply a case of clipping in to the RAM, screwing in the SSDs, and mounting the hard drives in the plastic drive sleds, which thankfully just clipped into place. That was an easy job. Mounting the PSU, on the other hand, was a nightmare. Although Bitfenix itself says the AX750 will fit in the case, what I didn't anticipate was how much extra room the braided cables would take up. After figuring out what I needed to plug in and threading the cables through the holes at the side of the PSU cage, I attempted to push the PSU into place via the back of the case; it wouldn't fit.
No amount of wiggling, or pulling of cables would get it slide in enough so I could screw it into place. It was only after GameSpot's own Sarah Lynch suggested I pull the two PCIe power cables out of an alternate hole to the right of the PSU cage did I make any real progress. And even then I had to carefully manage where the cables were bending to ensure there wasn't any overlap that prevented the PSU from sitting flush with the case. After about an hour of fiddling, and after some immense brute force to bend the cables, I finally got the PSU to fit. While the braided cables look great, you can save yourself a lot of hassle just using the standard ones, particularly if you're not planning on putting a window on the case.
Once the power cables were fitted and routed, all that was left was the GPU, which was thankfully a pretty easy job compared to the PSU. It's held in place by three thumbscrews at the back of the case, along with a top plate to push down onto the mounting bracket. After a quick jiggle and an extra pair of hands to hold the card steady, it was in and the rig was ready to be powered up.
Thankfully, everything worked the first time and the system posted through to the EVGA bios. Interestingly, the EVGA bios--while uEFI based--doesn't support a mouse, so you're limited to hammering through options with a keyboard. Where the EVGA trumps many, though, is in its overclocking options. You can delve into the most minute of voltage options and power saving tweaks, which is great for getting a stable overlock up and running. Indeed, with just a little bit of tweaking, I had a nice, stable overclock running on the 2700K within half an hour. With a vcore voltage of 1.256, 4.5Ghz--a boost of 1Ghz--wasn't a problem. I could have gone higher, but I didn't want to go above 1.3 vcore in order to prolong the life of the chip.
Annoyingly, the Stinger doesn't support offset voltage; that is, applying a select voltage for overclocked speeds, while having another lower voltage for when the CPU is doing less work. It's a technique Intel CPUs use at their native speeds, and it's a great way to save power and prolong the life of the CPU. Instead, using the the Stinger, you're forced to run the CPU at a higher voltage all the time. Another issue I had with the Stinger was with the RAM. Officially, the board supports up to 2333Mhz. In practice, it's simply not stable above 1600Mhz. No amount of timing or voltage tweaks worked; pushing the voltage to 1.6 allowed the system to post, but it wouldn't boot into Windows. Officially, EVGA say the RAM I'm using isn't supported (only the 8GB 1866Mhz and 16GB 1600Mhz kits are), but having had a scroll through the EVGA forums, it appears other users have been having issues with supported RAM too. Hopefully it's something that's easily resolved with a future firmware update.
Aside from the memory foibles, the rig performs like a champ. Disk performance is insane from the Samsung and Corsair SSDs, and I was even pleasantly surprised by the Hitachi Deskstars, which are the quietest performance hard drives I've ever used. The same can't be said for the Bitfenix Spectre LED fans, which are a tad noisy for my liking. Lesson learned, though: don't cheap out on the fans. As for games, well, this thing munches through pretty much anything you throw at it. I game on a 1920x1200 monitor, so I'm not pushing super-high resolutions or anything, but the frame rates are impressive. On Far Cry 3, set to ultra with 4xMSAA, the average frame rate hovers around 55 fps, while Batman Arkham City hits 75 fps. Not a single game I played dropped below 50 fps, with many easily averaging 100 fps.
That's a success in my book, and it gets even better for non-gaming tasks like video and audio rendering where the SSDs shave a lot of time off critical tasks. You can of course build a rig for a lot less money, depending on your needs, and hit similar levels of performance in games. This Mini-ITX rig wasn't the easiest thing to build, and there were compromises to be made, but for me, it's now my perfect PC: small, compact, and extremely powerful, all while looking fantastic. I can't ask for much more than that.
Are you considering making the move to Mini-ITX? What would you put in your perfect PC? Let us know in the comments below.